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Paul Dewar's motto was 'faith is political'

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Paul Dewar in 2019. Photo: Phillip Jeffrey/Flickr

Paul Dewar, the much loved and respected former Ottawa MP, died of cancer on February 6, 2019. Ten years earlier he spoke at a night class that I taught to middle-aged and older adults. Paul was raised in a political home and his parents were staunch Catholics, although he and his partner Julia Sneyd later attended at a United Church. I posted a piece on my blog in 2009 about Paul's appearance in my class, and am reposting it here.

Faith is political

You cannot be a person of faith without being political, says Paul Dewar, the New Democratic Party MP for Ottawa Centre. In early 2009, Dewar spoke to my Faith and Public Life class at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality. "Faith and politics are congruent and we have no option but to be political if we are going to live the gospel," Dewar said. "We have to constantly question what the Christian message is, and we can never stop trying to change the way things are in society." Dewar added that for him the word "political" includes electoral politics but also transcends it. "Our response to faith must be lived out in community," he insisted. "Faith is something that we must do and not only think about."

Growing up Catholic

Dewar talked about how he grew up in a Catholic household in Ottawa in the post-Vatican II era in the 1960s. "My parents were both deeply involved in their church, and they extended that into the community. Faith, their community, and their attempt to live the gospel were all of one woven cloth." Dewar said that their parish priest, a member of the Basilian Order, was also a valuable member of the community. "He was quiet and intelligent and able to work with others." Through him, Dewar became involved in Alleluia House, a project inspired by Jean Vanier, a place and community for people who were developmentally delayed. "These people were not unusual to me, they were my neighbours," added Dewar.

Dewar said that his parents' participation in the Catholic Family Movement in the 1960s "levered their social action." Initially it was Dewar's father Ken who was the more political member of the family, but it was his mother Marion, a public health nurse, who eventually ran for public office. "She was involved in the church and extended that into the community, and she got into public life in that way." Marion Dewar became the mayor of Ottawa in 1978 and later served as an NDP member of Parliament. "I was raised in the Catholic Church but in the social democratic faith, as well," Dewar related. "But I would say that it was a 75–25 per cent quotient of faith over politics that influenced who I am."

Social democrats

He commented that it was not easy for Catholics of his parents' generation to be social democrats (members of the CCF and later the New Democratic Party) because of opposition from many Catholic bishops. Dewar referred to a book called Catholics and Canadian Socialism, written by former priest and academic Gregory Baum. In it Baum documents how bishops in Quebec and Saskatchewan in the 1930s and '40s forbade Catholics to support the CCF. In their criticism, the bishops failed to draw a distinction between Communism and the democratic socialism of people like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas, who were also Protestant ministers.

The bishops' campaign was not entirely successful, Dewar said. "There were Catholic agrarian radicals like Joe Burton in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, who challenged the Church by running for the CCF. We also had Catholic labour people and activists in places such as Antigonish, Nova Scotia, doing the same thing. The bishops neither welcomed nor expected debate on these matters, but some people began to challenge the Church and the Vatican."

As he grew older and attended university, Dewar took a break from the Church. "But it never left me. I kept reading and thinking and questioning." At one point his mother introduced him to the mayor of Managua, and following completion of his first university degree, Dewar spent six months working in Nicaragua. "I was influenced by what I saw happening in the Christian community there. I saw how poor people who had been in a paternalistic relationship with the Church used liberation theology to understand what the gospel was all about. They discovered that social justice and the sharing of resources was what Christ was talking about. I had never seen this manifested to such a degree. It was when I came back from Nicaragua that I came back to the Church."

Discreet faith and politics

Dewar became a teacher and later became involved in his union. He was vice-president of the Ottawa Carleton Elementary School Teachers' Federation and helped establish the Humanity Fund, providing donations to projects in developing countries. He was elected to the House of Commons in 2006, 2008, and for a third term in 2011.

Following his presentation to my class, a student asked him if he talks publicly about his religion in political settings. "Not often," he replied. "I am prepared to talk openly about faith in settings such as this class, but when speaking in a political capacity I am reluctant to do so because I fear I could be misunderstood, and I do not want to use religion to score political points."

Dewar commented that his mother was an example to him in this way, as well. "Many people who attended my mother's funeral and an associated event at Ottawa City Hall were surprised to hear about the depth of her faith. She was profoundly spiritual, but she was also aware of where faith belonged. She did not place her Catholic faith in the forefront in her public life, and she was also very open to all faiths and religions."

In their discreet approach to dealing with the relationship between faith and politics, Dewar and his mother followed the example of Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister who became a premier. Douglas told interviewer Chris Higginbotham in Regina in 1958 that while he believed in applying religious principles to politics and to government, he was always opposed to using religion as a "gimmick" to gain political support.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former MP. This piece appeared on his Pulpit and Politics blog on February 21, 2019. 

Photo: Phillip Jeffrey/Flickr

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